Blog: The Educated Reporter

Assessing the Future of Teacher Evaluations

Tying teacher evaluations to the success of their students has been one of the heavy lifts in the education space this past decade.

Teacher groups argue the scrutiny they face overlooks the role poverty, family education and parental investment play into a child’s education. Teacher evaluation evangelists point to the significant public resources cities and states pour into public schools, with much of the money going to teacher pay. The heavy tab society picks up to pay its teacher force merits some watchdog mechanism, the argument goes.

Along those lines, if the chief commodity of the public school is the student it produces, measuring the quality of that student—and those responsible for their education—is the only viable consumer reports device taxpayers have at their disposal.

The Obama administration is decidedly in the consumer reports camp. And whether states like it or not, the 10 percent of federal money they receive to run their K-12 systems provides a heavy enough stick the White House can wield to institute the policies it deems vital.

But sticks need carrots to stage an effective public policy pas de deux; with congressional inaction on reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration is capable of presenting states with the rather sweet incentive of an opt-out from the federal law’s provision to have 100 percent of students proficient on key subjects by next year. In exchange, states have to promise many things, including a teacher assessment system that ties their evaluations to the academic success of their students.

Since the 2011 NCLB waivers were announced, 42 states, a select group of large California school districts and the District of Columbia have received exemptions from some of the more onerous aspects of the nation’s chief K-12 education law of the land. And they’ve all promised to in part tie teacher evaluations to student growth models. The timeline is aggressive: States have vowed to build the teacher assessment systems by 2014-15 and use them to inform decisions on personnel by 2015-16 or 2016-17.

In this context, it’s no wonder states have aggressively expanded the body of laws and regulations governing teacher assessments as they relate to student test scores. Certainly many state leaders were genial to the idea of linking teacher evaluations to student gains, but the federal government’s role shouldn’t be overlooked.

2011 was a bellwether year for state legislation on teacher evaluations. National Council on Teacher Quality released a report in early 2012 that found nearly half the states (24) were adapting language to consider classroom effectiveness (student growth data) in teacher evaluations—up from 15 for the previous year.

Earlier this year NCTQ released updated figures that included developments in 2012. Some states went ahead and increased the weight student test scores would have on teacher evaluations. NCTQ created the charts below to document the rise of teacher accountability rules on the books:

State legislatures have been busy with education laws of all stripes, particularly on matters related to student and teacher assessments. Hundreds of pieces of legislation, most of it voted into law, have passed through the hands of state legislators since 2010. Education Commission of the States keeps a repository of impending, approved and vetoed education initiatives.

By our count, 2012 saw the creation of 108 new laws or regulations in 24 states meant to improve teacher effectiveness, such as linking student growth to teacher evaluations or providing pay incentives for improved performance.

This year 18 states put forward 77 laws or regulations that have been adopted or are still going through the legislative process.

However, teacher salaries don’t exactly align with the views of some critics who say the nation’s public instructors are part of one great Augean stable. Teacher wages have been decreasing over time as a total share of education spending, dipping from 66 percent to 60 percent between 1999 and 2010. Benefits have increased as a share over the same period, from 16 to 21 percent, though many teachers aren’t eligible for social security benefits because of their pensions, which have come under the budget scalpel of cost-conscious state lawmakers in recent years.

Still the total sum the taxpayer contributes to public education is considerable: In 2010, instruction costs took up the grand majority of all education spending, totaling $6,852 per pupil out of $10,784, according to the federal government’s “The Condition of Education 2013,” an annual report issued by the U.S. Department of Education. Other large costs per pupil include operation and maintenance ($1,063) and administration ($830).

Unless the well-heeled foundations funding the accountability movement suddenly have an about-face, the issue of teacher evaluations is here to stay. Their pockets run deep, cresting a legion of advocacy groups who’ve sought to bring these teacher assessment laws to bear. EWA is helping reporters navigate the policy waterways that are having a significant impact on teacher pay, retention and even morale at an upcoming seminar in Chicago, “More Than Scores: Assessing the Future of Teacher Evaluations.” The two-day event starts tomorrow, so follow along on the usual channels for updates, insights and perhaps some butting of the heads from our guest experts. 

Photo: Math exam with answers at a charter school in San Jose. 

Credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn